Thursday 2 December 2010, 14:54
The Carmarthenshire Vans form the western reaches of the Brecon Beacons. The wild, high, open moorland that stretches on as far as Carreg Cennen Castle is the Black Mountain.
This mountain is not as pretentious as the Black Mountains of Hay on Wye and the Welsh borderlands. Those hills gather together in the plural, but the Black Mountain that stands brooding above Brynaman is content enough to be singular. It is self confident as one.
This area came to mind this week because I'm due to visit Bethlehem to open the village Christmas Fair. This is not Bethlehem, Judea, but Bethlehem, Carmarthenshire, which lies at the foot of the northern slopes of the Black Mountain, just above the magnificent flow of the Towy and its valley, heading downwards to Llandeilo, and upwards to Llandovery.
The mountain has a dominant colour that has a clue in its name, although dark grey would be nearer the mark and, from a distance, that shade is widespread, nature having carried massive boulders and scree on an ancient ice-flow to dump them as soon as Swansea Bay was in view on the far horizon.
This land is border country of another kind, marking the impressive ridge of carboniferous limestone that separates the coal measures of old industrial south Wales from the northern Old Red Sandstone that stretches under the agrarian quilt of fields that towards mid Wales.
It's a funny thing, but fate has always decreed that I be drawn to limestone. I was born on the slopes of the Black Mountain, I had two teaching headships in Pontneddfechan and Llangattock, and I now live to the north of Aberdare, near the quarries of Penderyn and Cefn Coed. They are all on the band of limestone that circles the south Wales coalfield.
The Black Mountain is wild, an open moorland where no trees grow, and when you walk there it exudes a clearly discernable feeling of being at one with the ancients. To the west are three cairns viewing the valley of the Cennen and the dramatic limestone ridge that firmly holds the famed castle. Carreg Cennen is a good name, a strong name.
For me the mountain was a part of life. As a child I played my games there, I swam in Pwll Du Uchaf and Pwll Du Isaf, the Upper and Lower Black Pools.
When the summers were good and reliable they turned up when they were expected, and I hiked to Carreg Lwyd, the grey stone, that formed the peak, carrying my ex-army haversack stuffed with dandelion and burdock pop and condensed milk sandwiches.
In later year I did my courting there and on occasion, when sadness and loss beset the family, I walked the moorland just 'to let it'. Only the mountain saw the weeping and it allowed you your space and time to release that emotion.
Oddly enough, in those days, if a man was seen regularly walking the mountain on his own, it got around the village that he was depressed. I don't know what modern lone day hikers would make of that.
I have also been lost on the mountain. Well, not so much lost, as late, after the annual pilgrimage to Carreg Cennen Castle that was always undertaken by children on Whit Monday. I don't know where the tradition came from, but we all did it, from every village in the Amman Valley. It was our version of going to Mecca.
John Salter, Tecwyn Thomas and I left it late to leave to the castle one year and by the time we got to the ridge of the mountain, the mist and darkness was upon us.
My mother had already reported to the police that we were missing, but the good Lord proved again that he never works a three day week, for he placed a parked car on the Brynaman to Llangadog road, just where the road begins to dip towards the south.
Mind you, it must have been a shock to that courting couple to be quietly sitting there, when suddenly, out of the mist and darkness come three vagabonds desperate for a lift. Just to put the record straight, he did marry her a few months later!
The Black Mountain, my spiritual home and a place of the ancients, stretching down to Gwynfe, Bethlehem and Llyn y Fan Fach, of Lady of the Lake fame. It is a wild, rugged open moorland and the fact that it forms the Carmarthen Vans and the western reaches of the Brecon Beacons is true, but it is a place in its own right: proud, independent and quite unique.
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